Setting: Real or Fictitious?

Choosing a setting for a novel isn’t always an easy task.  A writer friend advised me once to chose a fictitious setting for one of my novels, and she was absolutely right. In that case. The advantages of choosing a fictitious setting are many. Such as:

  1. The writer can make it look and feel however he or she wants.
  2.  There are no preconceived notions in a made-up setting.
  3.  It encourages the reader to use their imaginations much more to create the landscapes and sights and sounds of the locale.
  4. No one can say you got it wrong! Let’s face it, if you use a real location and aren’t really specific about it, mistakes can be made. Readers don’t like to read something incorrect about their hometown. I know, I’ve heard from one before when I misspelled a city’s name. Oops. Yes, embarrassing!

On the flip side, real setting can:

  1. Ground a story in historical details which might be crucial to the point you are trying to make.
  2. Enables the readers to readily identify with a scene. For example, if you put your story in Manhattan, everyone can easily imagine what it looks like even if they haven’t been there.
  3. Readers can be attracted to storylines which take place in their backyard or their home country.

As you might imagine, there’s no right or wrong answer about picking a setting. You just need to determine if a real location will make the story more effective or not.  My novels about Vietnam – The Reach of the Banyan Tree  & Beauty Rising absolutely depend upon the stories taking place in Vietnam. They are strongly mixed with history and real places and people that putting them in a fictitious setting would completely defeat their purpose and water them down to nothing.

However, my novel A Love Story for a Nation is set in an unnamed country. I did this on purpose as the story centers around one man’s struggle for freedom in a country under a dictatorship. These common themes can be seen in many countries around the world and it did not need to be specified. I remember one of my reviewers was confused at first because she couldn’t figure out where the story took place until she commented that it could have taken place anywhere. Yes, that’s the point.

In my other novel Which Half David I was playing a lot off of my southeast Asian experiences in creating a diverse culture that was a mix of many of the places I had lived and visited. So I decided to create a brand new island nation that would be a cross-section of those places. I think it worked well. I’ve seen this also in one of my favorite novels The Ugly American by William Lederer and Eugene Burdick. It’s setting is the country of Sarkhan which is a mix of Thailand and Vietnam. The history of Sarkhan mimicked the post-WWII Vietnam history but the language and culture of Sarkhan was closer to that of Thailand.

As I’m starting writing my next novel – first two chapters finished – this topic has reared its head again because I still haven’t decided how to set this novel. I think it will end up being set in Malaysia. I’m still weighing the pros and cons.

So, think it through and get it right! Then commit to the setting with all you got.

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The Best I Could Is No Longer The Best I Can

May this always be true: The best I could do is no longer the best I can do.

If this is true, it means improvement is happening. And that’s what we want, isn’t it? Growth?

I’m not the same writer I was five years ago. Honestly, that’s a very good thing.  When I was starting out as a newly published independent author, I made mistakes. A lot of mistakes. I’m still prone to mistakes today, but, boy, things were kind of rough back in the day, which makes me feel very appreciative of all those positive reviews these strangers left on what was not my best work.

There’s a reason I’m rambling on about writing growth. I have been meaning to start re-promoting one of my favorite novels, which I published in 2014 – The Reach of the Banyan Tree.  It was my third and longest novel at the time – a multi-generational, historical romance novel mixed with war, adventure, and contemporary intrigue. I’ve always loved the story behind this novel. It covered all my old stomping grounds from my ten years living in Vietnam.

Finally, I was ready to start re-promoting it, but something happened. I started reading through the beginning of this novel and, honestly, I cringed. No, I didn’t really write like that back then, did I?

I read more and sighed deeply with one simple realization: I did not want to promote this book if it’s going to make readers think that that’s the way I currently write. I didn’t want to give that impression because there were many problems with the way my prose flowed in 2013. So I had a decision to make: keep as is and no longer promote it or do a complete re-edit and revision.

Yep, what you know what I chose.  Over the last two weeks I did a thorough read and re-edit – getting rid of all those narrative issues and those needlessly wordy sentences. Oh, and those adverbs. There was more, but you get the picture.

Once the ebook was reformatted, then came the paperback. I came to realize that I didn’t even know what a drop-cap was back in 2013 when I was putting this together. So you know what I had done? I used some sort of anchored text box to make drop caps at the beginning of each chapter. They looked terrible.

The final re-edit isn’t perfect. I didn’t have unlimited time, but I’m much happier with the result, and I am now happy to start re-promoting it.

This whole process gives me hope that the best of my writing is yet to come. It’s exciting for me to see what’s brewing in the mind which will one day be a whole host of new stories. Let’s hope they are crisper than ever before.

The First Ever Massive Trilogy Read-Through

I had just finished the second revision of book 3 of my brand new trilogy.

So what was next?

Revision three, of course.  But then I paused and thought for a moment. I knew what I needed to do, but I was reluctant. It would be too time-consuming. It would stop the flow of my revision work. No, don’t make me!

What was it? It was to read the entire trilogy from first to last page. I would become the first person to read the entire trilogy, which makes sense since I wrote it.

I told myself I needed to do it. I rolled my eyes and thought of any other way to get around it. But I knew if I wanted to present the very best overarching story possible that I needed to delve back into the ENTIRE story.

So that’s what I’m doing.

I just finished reading book 1: A Man Too Old for a Place Too Far, and you know what? I enjoyed it. After just finishing the storyline of the entire trilogy, it was fun to revisit the genesis of everything. There were definitely some details along the way which I had forgotten, but I was pleased with the story’s consistency.

I think I’m on the right track, and that makes me happy.

It can be painful to read one’s own work. Tedious, actually. But it’s so important, and I usually end up surprising myself thinking “Hey, how did I think of that? If I wrote this paragraph today, I don’t think it would have been as good.”

On the other hand I also run into these thoughts: “I don’t really like this sentence anymore. How about a simple edit?”

Re-reading is crucial to jog one’s memory of the myriad of character and plot details which absolutely must mesh.

But do it. Hold your nose if you have to, but keep re-reading your own work. It will be well worth it.

If you haven’t read book 1, please check it out. It’s a story I’m really happy with, and it’s only $1.89 on Amazon. Permanently.  Thanks for the support!

Link to Amazon. Only $1.89 on Kindle.

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After 2+ plus years, the story is finished.

Just wanted to share briefly what is making me so happy today: my first trilogy – my first series of any kind – is finished.

This afternoon I capped off the story with as neat and tidy ending that I could muster. The story of Frick, Bee, Ash, Rachany, Ruthy, Haddock, Hatty, Ulrich, and Monroe is finished, and I’m very happy with how it turned out.

In a different post, I’m going to chronicle what I learned about writing by taking on this project, but I couldn’t let my happiness remain inside.

It’s done!

I know. I know. I have months of revision ahead of me.

But who cares?

There were days in the past when I couldn’t see how the ending I wanted was going to connect with what I had already written.

And then, little by little, it worked.

It didn’t hurt that for the past nine days, I’ve had nothing to do but WRITE! It’s been awesome since I was able to crank out the final 25,000 words.

The result is this a 200,000 plus word trilogy.

Book 3 of THE FORGOTTEN CHILD TRILOGY – A Parting in the Sky

To celebrate: here’s the first mock-up of the cover.

Coming 2019!

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Writing: About Lengths and Words

I’m a concise writer. I know that.

I’ve learned to slow down my writing over the years because at times it can be at breakneck speeds, and there are rumors about that some readers like to stew in the words of a story and not have to gulp them all down from the end of a fire hose.

Who knew?

So length and word count are always on the forefront of my mind when I’m writing. That’s not always a good thing. I’ve heard that the best length of any story is precisely the length it should be. Some stories are meant to be short. Others long. Many others somewhere in-between.

The general standard (some would dispute this) for length is above 20,000 words is a novella and above 50,000 words a novel. If you are well below 20,000, you’ve simply written a short story.

As I’m narrowing in on the ending to my trilogy, I’m finding that volume three is feeling shorter than the other two. Is that bad?

Well, it all depends, and this is where it gets messy and subjective. This is where a fresh pair of eyes and a good editor can help guide you.

I want an ending that’s satisfying but doesn’t drag. That’s well developed but not too short that the reader feels shortchanged. (As a side note, I know that not all readers think alike. Some will never be satisfied no matter the length, but that’s another post.)

How do you navigate your story so it’s exactly right? You can’t. No story is ever exactly right. But you can make decisions which will help guide in the right direction.

First, don’t fret on word count. If the story arc and development leads you to 40,000 rather than 70,000, then please leave it at 40. No one wants to read 30,000 useless words.

Second, make sure your story development delivers on all accounts. Characters. Have you satisfactorily shown their development? Do their decisions in the book make sense in a chronological way? Have you shown the readers what they are desiring and why they do the things they have done? If not, expand. If yes, move on and don’t say anymore. In regards to subplots, are they all necessary. Yes, you might be able to expand your novel another 10% by telling us a backstory or weaving a secondary thread through the plot, but is it necessary. Completely necessary to show characterization, so show foreshadowing, to bring the plot to realization?  If you can’t answer yes to all of these, then nix it. Perhaps write it a short story instead. Don’t bog down the storyline in unwanted information.

Third, slow down and let the language simmer a little more. You always want to keep your language short and concise, but don’t be afraid to expound a little. I’m writing this especially for me. Add that description–especially amidst the dialogue. Because I just love dialogue and I can write some of my draft chapters almost like a play. Not cool! Think of the reader. Show what happens. Describe the movements. Describe the scenery. But don’t feel compelled to write twenty pages about the topography of the protagonists hometown. (Please no! Keep it moving, remember)

A good editor will help you with all of these because, honestly, it’s so hard to judge one’s own writing.

How about you? What helps you in your writing endeavors?

Plotting or Plodding?

Humph! Here’s the real truth about writers: sometimes we have no idea how it’s all going to turn out.

I mean, really, what are we doing? What am I doing? What is my plot doing?

Sometimes it feels like I’m playing a giant connect-the-dots while blindfolded. Are these two dots really going to connect in the end?

This is an issue with any type of writing – including a stand-alone novel. But with a series, humph! Plotting seems like plodding at an ant’s pace.

I’m working on the final segment of The Forgotten Child Trilogy, and while I’m currently on chapter 19 – more than half way finished, I am starting to wonder how I’m going to tie up all of these strands. Yes, I like strands. Perhaps too much. Maybe I should have stuck with the third person limited. I did that once with the novel A Love Story For a Nation and I must admit it was freeing because every scene whether description or dialogue came from one person’s perspective. That’s why books which in the first person “I” have such an appeal.  It’s immediate. It’s personal. But let’s admit it. It’s also limiting.

My first series is being written in third person omniscient. It has to be this way because there are so many characters who are helping to tell the story. Now, I don’t write the narration from everyone’s perspective. In fact, there are three (maybe four) antagonists and I don’t tell it from their perspective at all. It’s just a choice I’ve made in this particular series. I wanted their motivations to be slightly obscured through the perspective of the different protagonists. Yes, this story is about many people.

There’s the rub. It can be confusing because I’m trying to balance many different strands from many different perspectives: Frick, Bee, Ash, Hatty, Ruthy, Rachany, Haddock, Adams & O’Malley – any more?

Okay, so what’s the solution? How to keep my head on straight?

First, take a deep breath and know that no one else – I mean no one – will ever see your first draft. So it’s okay if it’s terrible, and it usually is.  Just get the story down the best you can. You may not fill all holes at once and that’s okay.

Second, plan on spending the next six months doing rewrites and revisions. Just do it. Build in the time into your writing schedule. You’ll be amazed at how your mind will shift and you’ll get new ideas – better ideas – over time. Don’t be in a rush to get it done. Take your time.

Third, remember that it will work out in the end. It always does. The ‘i’s will be dotted the the ‘t’s crossed. It just takes time. It may seem chaotic right now, but after you write that next chapter, some clarity will come. More direction will be revealed and you’ll get there.

Four, remember to tie up all the ends even if it means re-writing. Don’t leave anything hanging when you come to the end of the series. Therefore, read the whole thing again. I know, I know. You told yourself that you’d rather bang your head against the wall than read your story one more time. But it will be worth it. Slow down. Read it again. Make sure it’s all tied up neatly in the end.

A good last impression is the best impression. Don’t let the end slip away from you.

Okay, now I need to start following my own advice.

Cancel Everything. Write and Discover.

A couple months ago, I was publicly weighing the options of how to write book three of my trilogy. I first stated how great outlining was, though I rarely used it before. Then I followed that up by stating that I just need to discover where I’m going before I get there.

I’m not a good third way into my novel and I realize how ridiculous all of this sounded. I can’t plan or outline or discover anything until I start writing.

Writing is outlining. Writing is planning. Writing is discovering. At least it is for me.

I fretted and worried about where this story would be going. How silly it all seems now!

As I started writing, I have discovered ideas that I would never have thought of before. I  came across plot shifts and surprising developments that even surprised me, the writer.

How does that work? How am I so blinded by my own story that it ends up surprising me?

It must be about a lack of development. When I outline an idea, it’s just a shell with not any structure standing around it. It sounds good at the time, but it’s hollow with no substance behind it.

Then I start writing. The first idea gets developed and that leads to a new set of objectives and details which I didn’t have in my writing bag before. So I shift gears and end up going in a direction which I couldn’t have anticipated.

When I’m not writing, it’s frightening because I can’t figure out what’s going to happen.

But when I’m writing, it’s exhilarating. It’s like walking down a virgin path in the woods and discovering a mysterious cave you never new was there. I don’t think I’ll doubt myself anymore.  This is how I write. This is how I live. I can’t plan. I don’t know how to. All of my plans fall through as my never-ending brain shifts and changes at the whims of a new idea.

So I think I will strop trying to write like anyone else but myself.

I write to discover. Period. Foreever and ever. I’ll leave the outlining to those really smart writers who have a singular mind which doesn’t change.

I’ll continue to change with the whims of the air. And my mind.